“I want the full experience.”
Melissa McCarthy is a great actress. Even when she’s playing the flattest, most one-dimensional characters, through her gentle-hearted presence, there’s a tremendous warmth and inner life brought to the screen. McCarthy is a natural performer; there’s both levity and emotional sincerity in her acting that’s equally effortful and effortless. For all the graceful emotion and winning heart that she places into her roles, though, her acting choices aren’t made lightly. It’s apparent that Melissa McCarthy puts a tremendous amount of attention into her character work, from the way they look — down to their haircut and wardrobe — to the way they talk and act in their everyday life. It’s a shame, then, that —for all the dutiful care brought by her acting — she tends to suffer under some weak, underdeveloped writing. Even, at times, from her own pen.
Sadly, Melissa McCarthy’s versatile talents are, once again, not put to good use in an earnest-but-undercooked comedy that doesn’t know what to do with them. In this case, it’s Life of the Party, which she also produced and co-wrote with her husband, director Ben Falcone. For as much life as McCarthy brings to the screen, Life of the Party is practically dead on arrival. Visually bland, contrived in its story structure, lackluster in its emotional gratification, and, worse of all, pale when it comes to winning gags, there’s little to celebrate here, despite McCarthy’s winning and likable presence. The third film McCarthy made with her husband, behind 2014’s unremarkable Tammy and 2016’s insufferable The Boss, Life of the Party is as bankrupt as a college student buried under a mountain of student debts and practically as aimless and unmotivated as an undecided sophomore. Good-natured at times, and periodically carefree though it can sometimes be, Life of the Party favors broad character arcs and wandering gags over a firm story and focused jokes, and while that can be charming in the right film, it feels a little bit lazy here, despite McCarthy’s constant and consistent work to win you over with her sunny, bright attitude.
The threadbare story follows Deanna Miles (McCarthy), the loving mother of Maddie (Molly Gordon), a college senior getting ready to transition into the next stage of her life. Deanna gave up college during her senior year in order to raise Maddie, so the mother is more overcome with emotions and nostalgia than usual. And that’s before she’s hit with a devastating bombshell of a confession from her husband, Dan (Matt Walsh): he wants to get a divorce. With twenty-something years of marriage down the tubes, and with not much direction in her own life, Deanna does something drastic: return to college to get her degree. At the same school she once went to, which is, of course, where her daughter also goes to school. Although Maddie doesn’t know what to think about her mom’s recent pivot back to her younger years, her sorority sisters (Gillian Jacobs, Adria Arjona, Jessie Ennis) quickly adopt her mom under their wing. And while she’s a bit dorky and outlandish and prone to chatting during uncomfortable moments, Deanna soon becomes a welcomed presence among her college peers — even if they’re half her age.
Life of the Party means well. That’s probably the best compliment I can give it. Although the characters are typically underdeveloped, it’s evident that Falcone and McCarthy love them all just like Deanna does. That lends the movie its compassionate, sympathetic spirit, which makes it more tolerable during its long stretches of inactive comedy. Indeed, there’s not a whole lot in Life of the Party that’s actually funny. There are a couple mildly amusing moments, but it’s hard to pinpoint anything truly uproarious. The jokes themselves are tepid at best and tedious at their worst, and while Deanna is a very driven, active personality, the movie surrounding her is certainly a lot more scattershot and a lot less defined.
Even when Falcone’s film is infused with a liberal dose of sweetness, however, it never finds a proper way to put McCarthy’s natural charisma and dynamite screen presence into a wholesome, worthwhile comedy. The same can be said for its likable and commendable ensemble of talented players. Gordon has nice chemistry with her on-screen mom, but her performance is often simply reacting to McCarthy. Of the sorority sisters, Jacobs is the given the most to work with, for reasons that are quickly apparent to those who have followed her outstanding work over the years, but even Jacobs seems unclear what she needs to do here. Rounding out the supporting cast are Maya Rudolph as McCarthy’s BFF Christine, Debby Ryan as Jennifer, the preppy girl who quickly takes a distaste to Deanna, and Luke Benward, Deanna’s bright-eyed college love interest. All of them try to do their part to make the proceedings fun, but none of them are given enough leg room to do anything substantial, which is what you can say about a great deal of this ill-defined comedy. The comedy isn’t funny enough to make you like the movie as a goofy romp and it doesn’t have enough on its mind to be intriguing with any sort of commentary. It is generally just sorta there, the type of mediocre movie meant to fill up Redbox machines and play on loop on HBO in the future but, when it comes to its theatrical release, it’s simply just biding its time.
In that sense, would it be fair to call Life of the Party not only a bad comedy but a bad film? Certainly. My rating below will likely reflect the quality of the movie more than my actual feelings towards it, which are still negative but not quite as strong as the low rating might suggest. Life of the Party lacks coherence, firm structure, and clear motivation, and it’s more comfortable playing it casual and mild-mannered, with flights of zaniness sprinkled throughout, than building strong jokes with rewarding punchlines. It’s not the type of move you want to dismiss, necessarily. It has its heart in the right place, one would imagine, and it does feel like a labor of love. But its odd combination of care and indifference makes for an odd cocktail. It is clear that Melissa McCarthy is a real talent, filled with life and optimism and genuine star power. That’s what makes her often-underwhelming string of comedies all the more disappointing. Life of the Party isn’t the worst movie under her name, to be clear, but it might very well be her most insubstantial to date.